Album Review: Dave Cobb’s “Southern Family”

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 10.36.08 PM.pngThe United Kingdom ruled music in the 60s, Laurel Canyon dominated the 70s—now, it’s Nashville’s turn, and producer Dave Cobb is leading the revolution.

With today’s release of Southern Family, his latest gift to the world—I’m going to go ahead and call it a masterpiece, and so will you as soon as you listen to it—Cobb has enlisted the talents of Nashville’s finest to create a bar-raising compilation of epic proportions.  The Music City isn’t just about country, so Cobb used a cross-section of talent to create the feeling of the American South in sonic form.  The album features 12 songs, most of them original, all tethered by a common thematic thread: the family, and its role in Southern culture.

The majority of the record was created in legendary RCA Studio A since it was large enough to allow everyone to be in the room together during recording—family-style.  While there are no missteps on Southern Family, I do have my favorites.  Muscle Shoals music producer, songwriter, and heart-melter John Paul White was given the honor of being first on the tracklist with “Simple Song”; White’s grandfather was his childhood idol, and when he died, White was crushed.  White recalled that his grandmother didn’t cry, and when he asked why, she revealed that her husband had led a hard, somewhat destructive life, and that she’d been grieving about him for years. White sings, “Done my mourning in your arms/Ain’t gonna lose sleep when you’re safe from harm…I will remember/But I will cry for you no more”, as he tells the story from his grandmother’s perspective.  Spare instrumentation allows White’s tenderly emotive voice to shine, making “Simple Song” simply superb.

Though White’s song is first on the album, Americana superstar and roots preservationist Jason Isbell was the first artist asked to contribute; his Pentecostal upbringing informed his contribution, “God Is A Working Man”, a reflection of how faith shaped his Southern family.  Cobb’s cousin Brent, a west Georgia-bred songwriter with a rising star, contributed “Down Home”, a ditty about Sunday afternoons with his family, full of behind-the-beat swagger and a touch of twang.

When Cobb asked Morgane and Chris Stapleton to join the project, they decided to record “You Are My Sunshine”.  While not an original, the Stapletons put their own bluesy spin on the rootsy classic; the song is a special one to the pair, so much so that Chris has it engraved on the inside of his wedding ring.  My first listen to this version inspired a physical reaction, and I had to lean over with my elbows on my knees.  With heavenly harmonies and vocal abilities endowed by the good Lord Himself, it’s undeniable that these two were born to make music together.

Jamey Johnson took a different approach, writing about the importance of a family heirloom with “Mama’s Table”, soulful newcomer Anderson East recalls being taught to be a man in “Learning”, and Washington-born country star Brandy Clark’s celestial contribution, “I Cried”, proves that you don’t have to be a Southerner to be a part of the Southern family.

The album finishes brilliantly with “The Way Home”; The Black Crowes’ Rich Robinson plays his gritty reverb-laden guitar to accompany a gospel choir comprised of Nashville’s The Settles Connection.  You can even hear the sounds of cars driving by during the introduction, as if Cobb was capturing a moment in time in Nashville—Cobb has definitely captured a moment, and Southern Family is the hallmark of an era.

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